The Texas Veterans Land Board today celebrates National Navajo Code Talkers Day. Made popular by the 2002 movie, “Windtalkers,” many now know about the Navajo Marines who would transmit messages in their native language to stymie Japanese code-breakers. According to Lieutenant General Seizo Arisue, the Japanese chief of intelligence during WWII, Japanese code-breakers never broke the code based on the Navajo language and spoken openly over the radio by native Navajo speakers, but did consistently break the encryptions used by the United States Army and Army Air Corps.
One reason for this is that the Navajo language is incredibly complex, has no alphabet, and in 1940, was spoken by only 30 non-Navajo in the world, none of whom were Japanese. At the time, there was no written form of the language; it was only oral.
These code talkers used their own language, but also encoded it similarly to the way that the military still uses the alphabet. When expressing an acronym today, for example, TAMMC, a military member would say “Tango Alpha Mike Mike Charlie,” in order to provide clarity and not have letters like B and D sound the same. The Navajo similarly used their language to identify letters of the English alphabet. One example is how to spell the word Navy in Navajo code. A code talker would say “tsah (needle) wol-la-chee (ant) ah-keh-di- glini (victor) tsah-ah-dzoh (yucca).” So essentially, they spelled out the English word in Navajo, which doesn’t have an alphabet, but used what it stood for instead. Some words were made up for things that didn’t exist in the original language; for submarine, the Navajo used the term “besh-lo” which literally means iron fish.
The Japanese were so confused by this encryption that they failed in most of the encounters where the Navajo Marines were deployed. From 1942 to 1945, every single “island-hopping” battle involved code talkers. At the month-long battle of Iwo Jima, for instance, code talkers sent over 800 messages over the radio with zero errors. In fact, 5th Marine Division signal officer Major Howard Connor stated, “Were it not for the Navajos, the Marines would never have taken Iwo Jima.”
The Japanese even captured a Navajo soldier, who was not a code talker, at Bataan. He was forced to listen to transmissions using the Navajo language, and after the war, he told a code talker, “I never figured out what you guys who got me into all that trouble were saying.” Fortunately, the Japanese were never able to break this code, even with some access to the language.
Unfortunately for the Navajo code talkers, the United States Armed Forces found this code so valuable that they classified anything to do with it, and forbade the soldiers and Marines from telling anyone, including their families, what they had done during the war.
As the Cold War heated up after WWII, the U.S. government thought they might need an unbreakable code in the future, and safeguarded the knowledge of the code talkers. This meant that no code talker was commended, promoted, or otherwise acknowledged for the great sacrifice and contribution they had made to the war effort. Even after the code talkers efforts were declassified in the late 1960s, they were not publicly rewarded.
Only in 2001 did the original 29 Marine code talkers receive the Congressional Gold Medal at the White House in a ceremony with President George W. Bush, and the other code talkers who came afterwards were granted the Congressional Silver Medal.
Today, the VLB salutes all who served with or as a Navajo code talker in World War II, and their families. Their bravery and fortitude were immense, and they changed the course of the war in the Pacific.
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